Even if the familiar is unpleasant or utterly miserable, at least we know the characters and setting and plot, right down to the recurring dialogue in this story.
“You never do the laundry!”
“I did it last time!”
“Oh, yeah? When?”
There’s something oddly comforting about knowing exactly how the story is going to go every single time. To write a new chapter is to venture into the unknown. It’s to stare at a blank page. And as any writer will tell you, there’s nothing more terrifying than a blank page.
But here’s the thing. Once we edit our story, the next chapter becomes much easier to write. We talk so much in our culture about getting to know ourselves.
But part of getting to know yourself is to unknow yourself. To let go of the one version of the story you’ve been telling yourself so that you can live your life, and not the story that you’ve been telling yourself about your life. And that’s how we walk around those bars.
So I want to go back to the letter from the woman, about the affair. She asked me what she should do.
Now, I have this word taped up in my office: ultracrepidarianism. The habit of giving advice or opinions outside of one’s knowledge or competence. It’s a great word, right?
You can use it in all different contexts, I’m sure you will be using it after this TED Talk. I use it because it reminds me that as a therapist, I can help people to sort out what they want to do, but I can’t make their life choices for them.
Only you can write your story, and all you need are some tools.
So what I want to do is I want to edit this woman’s letter together, right here, as a way to show how we can all revise our stories. And I want to start by asking you to think of a story that you’re telling yourself right now that might not be serving you well.
It might be about a circumstance you’re experiencing, it might be about a person in your life, it might even be about yourself. And I want you to look at the supporting characters. Who are the people who are helping you to uphold the wrong version of this story?
For instance, if the woman who wrote me that letter told her friends what happened, they would probably offer her what’s called “idiot compassion.”
Now, in idiot compassion, we go along with the story, we say, “You’re right, that’s so unfair,” when a friend tells us that he didn’t get the promotion he wanted, even though we know this has happened several times before because he doesn’t really put in the effort, and he probably also steals office supplies.
We say, “Yeah, you’re right, he’s a jerk,” when a friend tells us that her boyfriend broke up with her, even though we know that there are certain ways she tends to behave in relationships, like the incessant texting or the going through his drawers, that tend to lead to this outcome.
We see the problem, it’s like, if a fight breaks out in every bar you’re going to, it might be you. In order to be good editors, we need to offer wise compassion, not just to our friends, but to ourselves. This is what’s called — I think the technical term might be — “delivering compassionate truth bombs.”
And these truth bombs are compassionate, because they help us to see what we’ve left out of the story. The truth is, we don’t know if this woman’s husband is having an affair, or why their sex life changed two years ago, or what those late-night phone calls are really about.
And it might be that because of her history, she’s writing a singular story of betrayal, but there’s probably something else that she’s not willing to let me, in her letter, or maybe even herself, to see.
It’s like that guy who’s taking a Rorschach test. You all know what Rorschach tests are? A psychologist shows you some ink blots, they look like that, and asks, “What do you see?”
So the guy looks at his ink blot and he says, “Well, I definitely don’t see blood.”
And the examiner says, “All right, tell me what else you definitely don’t see.” In writing, this is called point of view. What is the narrator not willing to see?
So, I want to read you one more letter. And it goes like this.
I need help with my wife. Lately, everything I do irritates her, even small things, like the noise I make when I chew. At breakfast, I noticed that she even tries to secretly put extra milk in my granola so it won’t be as crunchy.